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South Dakota “Big Year” and Other 2019 Highlights

White-eyed Vireo - Vireo griseus

I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.

I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.

It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.

By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus
A Sharp-shinned Hawk catching a House Sparrow in our back yard on Christmas Day. Species #250 for the year, and a photo that’s instantly one of my favorites.

250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!

Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.

In mid-April, I had a conference in Pierre for work. With the conference starting at noon, I left home long before dawn, hoping to get a few hours of birding in before the conference. As I was driving near the Missouri River southeast of Pierre, I saw a number of American White Pelicans along flooded areas along the river, so when I saw a large, white bird with black wing tips flying parallel to the road in front of me, I immediately dismissed it as a pelican. This was no pelican! My jaw dropped as I got closer and saw that it was a lone Whooping Crane!! MAJOR frustration as I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to grab a few frames, but the bird disappeared over a ridge and I thought I’d never get a chance to document the sighting. However, when I found a tiny side road, I was able to relocate the bird foraging in a corn field. For the next hour I watched the bird, getting some long distance shots as it foraged, and a few frames in flight when it left the corn field and returned to forage in a wetland area along the river. My first ever Whooping Crane sighting, and definitely a highlight for my 2019 South Dakota bird list!
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
When you’re trying for a South Dakota “Big Year”, spring migration is…everything! There are so many migrant bird species that move through the state, and you have a narrow window in which to spot them. By mid- to late-May, the spring migration was…disappointing! It was very cold yet, and very wet. Warblers are a huge draw for me when I bird in the spring, yet by May 19th, I’d only seen a handful of warbler species. On that day, the South Dakota Ornithologist Union was holding it’s spring meeting in Brandon, and a miserable forecast (stormy cool weather) didn’t seem to bode well for birding! It ended up being a truly magical day, however, with over 20 warbler species seen by birders in the Sioux Falls area that day. I myself ended up with 20 different warbler species that day, including several that you don’t see every year. The highlight of the day though was a lifer, a Henslow’s Sparrow that other birders found foraging in a grassy field on the south side of Newton Hills State Park.
American Three-toed Woodpecker - Picoides dorsalis
As a family we typically go the Black Hills once or twice a year. It’s a 6 hour drive (South Dakota is a big state!), so it’s not somewhere I get to bird a lot, and when with the family, my birding time is generally limited. However, in July I took a dedicated 3-day birding trip to the Hills, hoping to pick up a number of South Dakota species I hadn’t recorded in the state before. It was a great trip…I ended up adding 10 new South Dakota species, more than half of my new 2019 South Dakota total. It was also rather frustrating! I have yet to see a Bullock’s Oriole in the state! They’re common out there! I have yet to see a Black-headed Grosbeak! Also common out there! But I did pick up several South Dakota lifers, and one that was an all-time lifer, when this American Three-toed Woodpecker foraged on spruce trees very close to me.
Not a South Dakota lifer, but one I didn’t have on my yearly list until a VERY unexpected lone Rock Wren showed up at Good Earth State Park along the Iowa/South Dakota border. You can count on one hand the number of Rock Wrens recorded in eBird within 200 miles of this location! A good sighting, and a nice addition without which I wouldn’t have gotten to 250.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
A Magnolia Warbler from that magical weekend of May 19th. One of 20 different warbler species I recorded that day.
Eastern Rosella - Platycercus eximius
Definitely not a South Dakota bird! But a definite 2019 highlight for birding…a 3-week vacation with the family in Australia! Not a birding trip, but of course I was able to get a lot of life birds on that trip, including some incredibly colored species such as this Eastern Rosella.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
A moment I’ll never forget, when a freakin’ DINOSAUR stepped out of the rainforest right in front of us. A massive Southern Cassowary, from near Cairns, Australia.
Rainbow Lorikeet - Trichoglossus moluccanus
A pretty common sight in many areas where we went in Australia, a Rainbow Lorikeet. Given how they’ve adapted to city life and human landscaping, they’re actually considered a bit of a pest in many areas, but OH what a beautiful pest.
Galah - Eolophus roseicapilla
One of my favorites from Australia, a Galah. SO entertaining and social…just incredible fun to watch as they interact with each other and their environment.
Blue-winged Kookaburra - Dacelo leachii
Blue-winged Kookaburra from near Port Douglas. A BIG, chunk bird, these are the less common of two Kookaburra species we saw. The much more widely spread Laughing Kookaburra was a species we found in all the locations we visited in eastern Australia.

Bye-bye Birdie…Repubs set to gut Endangered Species Act

Greater Sage Grouse -- Centrocercus urophasianus

A Greater Sage Grouse, one of many species that have been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act in recent years. In the case of this species, political and economic interests won, and Sage Grouse were removed from consideration for protection. The partnership between conservative political groups and economic interests has been very successful in recent years in fighting species listings on the ESA, and with an environmentally hostile Republican Congress now emboldened with a new Republican President, the ESA as a whole has never been under more of a threat.

Mention “Greater Sage Grouse” to a birder, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a unique, large bird with spectacular breeding displays.  Mention Sage Grouse to a hunter, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a wily game bird that’s much sought after, particularly as numbers and hunting opportunities decline.  Mention Sage Grouse to energy developers, real estate developers, and conservative politicians in the West, and “Sage Grouse” is a four-letter word. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it sparked a fierce political battle, with Republican politicians in the West teaming with oil, gas, and real estate interests to fight protection.  Despite populations of Greater Sage Grouse declining by over 50% in the last 40 years, and despite the loss of vast areas of former sagebrush habitat, in 2015 the USFWS decided not to list the species under the ESA. It’s disingenuous to discount the impact political pressures had on that decision, as the Greater Sage Grouse still faces significant threats due to habitat loss.  However, one of the contributing factors in the USFWS decision not to list the species was, ironically, widespread conservation efforts that started happening in the West after the species was being considered for listing.  In effect, the threat of listing, and the very existence of the ESA, sparked protections that may have substantially reduced threats to the species. Without the ESA and the threat of legal protection, those conservation efforts likely would never have occurred.

There are other species where equally contentious political battles are currently being waged.  The Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as “Threatened” under the ESA in 2014, and for good reason. On the global IUCN “red list” of threatened species, the Lesser Prairie chicken is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, primarily due to the loss of >85% of its original habitat.  Only 20,000-40,000 birds are left, a number that is 98% lower than before settlement of the Great Plains. Despite the obvious scientific reasons for listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in 2015, a court order vacated the USFWS decision to protect the species. An energy development group, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had teamed with a number of counties in New Mexico to sue the government to prevent listing.  After the court order, the USFWS released a statement that the court order was contrary to the actual scientific, biologic evidence, and that protections were still required to ensure the species was preserved. However, in a very disappointing move to conservationists, the USFWS decided not to appeal the court ruling.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Sights like this have become incredibly common in many parts of South Dakota as Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase. Bald Eagles were one of the original species included on the Endangered Species Act. With their precipitous decline up through the 1970s, the story of the Bald Eagle was in fact one of the driving forces behind the very establishment of the ESA. Despite countless success stories such as this, the ESA is under a threat unlike any other in its 40+ year history, all due to political and economic interests that value short-term monetary gain over environmental and conservation concerns.

Western states and associated economic interests have wielded considerable political power in efforts to derail listing of species under the ESA, The Lesser Prairie Chicken is but one example.  Political battles against the ESA have ramped up substantially since the Northern Spotted Owl listing in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) resulted in the eventual establishment of the Northwest Forest Plan, resulting in major changes in forest management in the region. Those politically opposed to the ESA use the Spotted Owl case as a rallying cry, citing (supposed) massive job losses in the timber industry as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan. However, after the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted, an economic analysis of the first 10 years of the plan found that 40% of communities in the region experienced some economic decline, 37% experienced economic gains, while the rest were relatively stable.  The economic impacts were thus decidedly mixed, not the economic disaster that was foretold, and it was also very difficult to disentangle the economic impact of the Northwest Forest Plan from other economic and political impacts on forestry in the Pacific Northwest.  At the same time the Northwest Forest Plan was beginning to take effect, there was substantial increases in competition for timber products from other timber-producing regions such as Canada, Russia, New Zealand, even the elsewhere in the U.S. (primarily the southeastern U.S.).  Asian economic declines and a sharp decline in demand for PNW timber in Asian markets also strongly contributed to timber industry declines in the region. However, the perception that it was the ESA and the Northern Spotted Owl that “killed the economy” in parts of the PNW is still widely held among those without a complete economic and political understanding of timber industry declines in the area.

It’s been disappointing to see the lack of political will to uphold the ESA and the scientific research that supports decisions to list or not list a species. Given the strong biologic evidence to support listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and given that the 2015 court order to vacate the ESA listing occurred under the watch of a Democratic Obama administration, the decision not to appeal the ruling was viewed as a betrayal by many conservation groups.  However, it’s a sign of the power of political and lobbying groups that have rallied against the ESA in recent years. Even with a Democratic administration that is far more supportive of conservation concerns, the protective power of the ESA has eroded.  Scientific research and the actual biological basis on which ESA listings SHOULD be based have instead been replaced with the influence of politics and economics.

This weekend, we’re shifting to a new administration that will undoubtedly be much more hostile to conservation and environmental concerns than has been the Obama administration. The stocking of the Cabinet and other key government positions with businessmen who are openly hostile to environmental regulation ensures that stories like that of the Lesser Prairie Chicken will become increasingly common, where science and biologic need are dismissed in favor of short-term economic concerns.  The lack of political will to support provisions of the ESA will remove the regulatory and enforcement “bite” of the law, regardless of what happens with the law itself.

Even more distressing, however, are discussions about directly confronting the ESA itself. Rob Bishop (Republican, of course), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, states that he would “love to invalidate” the ESA.  Think about that.  The head of the Congressional Committee tasked with overseeing and preserving the nation’s natural resources, stating that he’d like to remove the very law that has been instrumental in preserving our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as countless other plant and animal species

We’re a country where a wide swath of the electorate knows more about Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement than they do about the Affordable Care Act, what’s happening in Syria, the real state of the economy, or other issues that are truly important.  It’s that ignorance, that apathy, that enables the election of a narcissistic, childish, pig of a man to the most powerful position on the planet.  Here’s hoping that someday soon, we all snap out of that apathy, start paying attention, and hold politicians accountable. Otherwise we’re in serious danger of losing all the great strides we’ve made in conservation and environmental protection in the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

Wrapping up Birding 2015

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

A Green-throated Carib, one of 24 new “lifers” for 2015. This was in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I told myself 2015 would be a “big year” kind of year for birding.  I started well!  I had intended to see how many species I could see within South Dakota during the year.  I started early, getting all the winter birds you could reasonably expect around here, then really hit it hard in spring.  During spring migration I did a lot of birding, and had reached 200 species in the state by mid-May.

And I ended with 221 species.  Part of it is the obvious…that it gets harder and harder to find new species as the year goes on. Part of it was health.  Starting in June, I started having all kinds of eye issues, and birding just wasn’t at the top of my priority list.  221 within South Dakota is still a nice year though.  Throw in a trip to Arizona in November for work, where I took a couple of personal days to bird, plus a week in the Virgin Islands on vacation, and my yearly list was closer to 300.  A mere 5800 or so fewer than Noah Strycker saw on his year-long quest to set a new world-wide birding record.

For the year in South Dakota, I only saw a handful of new species.  I’m not even sure how many I have lifetime in the state. Overall there have been about 435 species seen in the state.  For 2015, new ones included the incredibly strange Great Kiskadee that was found in November near Brookings, Violet-green Swallow (I don’t get to the western part of the state much), Gray Jay (see previous comment about traveling west), and a Black-necked Stilt.  Only the Kiskadee was a life bird, as I’d seen the others before out of state.

Photo of Lawrence's Goldfinch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch, another 2015 lifer.  They can be tough to find, even in range.  Sometimes they move into Arizona in winter, and I was lucky in finding several in Tucson in November.

Thanks to my birding in Arizona and the Virgin Islands, I did have several new lifers for 2015 other than the Kiskadee.  24 in total, with the new ones for 2015 including:

  • Elegant Trogon (Florida Canyon south of Tucson – HUGE highlight for me, particularly finding one in November when they’re tough to find)
  • Scaled Quail (SE of Tucson)
  • Hammond’s Flycatcher (Florida Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Plumbeous Vireo (Florida Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Lawrence’s Goldfinch (Within Tucson itself, a really nice one to pick up given how hard they can be to find)
  • Cassin’s Sparrow (SE of Tucson)
  • White-tailed Kite (SE of Tucson)
  • Rufous-winged Sparrow (SE of Tucson)
  • Hepatic Tanager (Madera Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Black-whiskered Vireo (Virgin Islands)
  • Caribbean Elaenia (Virgin Islands)
  • Magnificent Frigatebird (Virgin Islands)
  • Scaly-naped Pigeon (Virgin Islands)
  • Mangrove Cuckoo (Virgin Islands)
  • Zenaida Dove (Virgin Islands)
  • Green-throated Carib (Virgin Islands)
  • Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (Virgin Islands)
  • Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Virgin Islands)
  • Gray Kingbird (Virgin Islands)
  • Pearly Eyed Thrasher (Virgin Islands)
  • Bananaquit (Virgin Islands)
  • Black-faced Grassquit (Virgin Islands)
  • Antillean Nighthawk (Virgin Islands)

South Dakota Big Year (Kind of…)

Sora - Porzana Carolina

Sora, one that’s not hard to “count” around here if you go by sound. It’s another matter to see one, much less get a good photo. This is from late April.

I’ve never been a huge “lister”, at least in the formal sense. I know what birds I’ve seen, but I really haven’t ever kept a written list anywhere. Photos? Yeah, I definitely know how many bird species I have photos of. I keep a spreadsheet to organize my photos, with species, date, and location. I have photos for 415 species, all in North America (I haven’t traveled outside of North America during my time birding).

For species I’ve actually seen? I have a rough guess of around 480, just based on the number of of species photos I have. The problem is that I’ve never kept track of species that I’ve seen, but not photographed! Hooded Warbler? Check! Baikal Teal? Check! Even something as common in South Dakota as a Prairie Chicken? Check! I’ve seen them all, but have no photos.

If eBird would have existed when I started birding 15 years ago, I would definitely have an exact count. I’m not just talking my lifetime bird list, I’m talking my “South Dakota List”, my “Minnehaha County List”, my “2008 List”, etc. It’s a wonderful tool for not only contributing to ornithology studies, but also for listing. Since I really started using eBird a couple of years ago, I’ve entered 419 species, including 277 in South Dakota.

One of the interesting aspects of eBird is that you can get your “ranking”, in comparison to other birders in your area. I can see who has the most sightings in South Dakota, in my county, in the U.S. as a whole, or even who has the most “yard birds” in their life. It’s pure genius to me that Cornell includes these features in eBird. Given how (annoyingly sometimes!) competitive birders can be, seeing how you rank against others in your area is a good way to spur more eBird sightings!

This year I decided I would track how many species I see in South Dakota, for several reasons. First, I’ve never done it, and was curious how many the number might be in one year. Secondly, if you’ve birded for a while, seeing your 1,987th Common Nighthawk may not be that exciting, but I admit it IS satisfying to mentally and physically cross it off your list for the year, the first time you see one.

Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla

A species that screams SPRING to me, an Ovenbird. So nice to hear them singing when they arrive in May. Another you normally hear before you see it. Ovenbird was around bird #160 for the year.

It’s May 26th, and the count for the year is (drumroll please…) 193 species seen in South Dakota. That’s many more than I thought I’d have seen by this date.  If you include every rarity ever seen in South Dakota, even if there’s only one recorded instance, there are about 435 “South Dakota species”.  Recording 193 of them in less than 5 months seems pretty good to me, particularly since I haven’t traveled at all in the western part of the state, where many species can be found that can’t be found in the eastern half of South Dakota.  It’s also good from the standpoint that I haven’t seen much in the way of “mega rarities”, which means I’ve seen a good majority of the species you’d expect to see over the course of the year.

The downside?  Well, if you’d have asked me on January 1st whether I’d take 193 species by May 26th, I’d have definitely said yes!  However, 193 puts me in a mere SEVENTH place in South Dakota right now!  SEVENTH!!! The highest totals right now are around 220 species.  Does that bother me? I admit it kind of does!  I have REALLY birded much more this spring than in the past several years, and thought I was doing pretty good!  Evidently there are even kookier bird nuts out there than me!!

CURSE YOU eBIRD, for bringing to light my birding inadequacies!!! If it weren’t for eBird, I’d be quite merry with my 193 total!!

The Ultimate “Yard Bird” for New Mexico Birder

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

My best yard bird, a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 2 years ago and stuck around for several weeks. A great yard bird, but it doesn’t top Joe Fitzgibbon’s new bird.

Do you have a yard list?  A lot of birders keep a yard list, a tally of the different species they’ve seen or heard in their yard.  With the advent of eBird and the ease of entering bird sightings on my iPhone, iPad, or desktop, it’s awfully easy to keep track of a yard list, or other area list. I really didn’t ever formally keep ANY list, until I started entering bird reports in eBird.  Now I not only know how many species I’ve seen in my yard, but I also know how many I’ve seen in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, and the U.S. as a whole.  A handy tool that made a “lister”  out of a non-lister in myself!

My yard list isn’t all that fantastic. I only have 52 species.  We’ve lived in our house for 8 years now, so 52 species isn’t all that impressive.  It’s a new house, with landscaping I myself put in 8 years ago when we built the house. Without mature landscaping and bigger trees, you do limit the species you can find!  I do have a few nice “yard birds” though.  There’s an active Bald Eagle nest just a mile from my house, and it’s not rare to see one of them soaring overhead. When we first built the house and moved in, it was an incredibly rainy September and there were no other houses built around us yet.  there was a Lesser Yellowlegs in the muddy pools in the backyard.  Nice to get a shorebird in a suburban backyard!  The best yard bird was from 2 winters ago though.  I’d never had Common Redpolls in the yard, and it was a tremendous winter for Redpolls across the region.  I had a group of about a dozen Redpolls regularly visiting when one day, my young son looked out at the feeder and said “what’s the white one”?  It was a Hoary Redpoll, a real rarity, and a bird that really stood out from his “common” cousins. A great yard bird, and one that several folks came over to see.

An even better yard bird happened to land in the back yard of a good birding friend from work.  Alas, it happened before I became a birder and I never saw it, but he had birders flock to his yard from across the region to see the mega-rarity.  A lifetime birder who had never seen a Great Grey Owl, my friend looked out one winter, and lo-and-behold, a Great Grey Owl was perched in his backyard.  Why is this better than my very rare Hoary Redpoll?  Up until my friend’s backyard visitor, the ONLY Great Grey Owl ever seen in South Dakota was a dead one that was found.  His was the first live bird ever seen in the state, and to this day it remains the only Great Grey Owl seen in South Dakota.

The Hoary Redpoll was a nice addition to my yard list, and the Great Grey Owl certainly was a highlight for my friend, but neither can touch the new yard bird from Joe Fitzgibbon in New Mexico.  An avid birder, he had recently made a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to try and spot a California Condor.  He didn’t have any luck.  A little while later, while at home, he saw a very large bird land in his backyard.  It was…you guessed it…a California Condor!! It was the first Condor seen in New Mexico in likely over a century. Not a bad yard bird!  In the pecking order of great yard birds, I’d say Fitzgibbon’s Condor trumps my Hoary Redpoll and my friend’s Great Grey Owl!!

That’s part of the excitement of birding.  You never know what you may find when you venture out on a birding trip.  And on occasion, just a casual glance out the kitchen window might yield the surprise of a lifetime.

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